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Friday 5: Restrictor-plate kings and Daytona tactics

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s pied-piper on restrictor-plate tracks, creates the question of who are the best plate drivers in Cup.

Many say Brad Keselowski, noting his five Talladega victories and one Daytona victory in his career, but it is not unanimous.

In the last three years Keselowski is tied with Penske teammate Joey Logano for most points wins at a restrictor-plate track with three each. The only other drivers with more than one plate win in the last three years are Earnhardt (2) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2). The only other drivers to win a restrictor-plate race in the last three years is Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch with one each.

Keselowski’s success has come from the strong Fords Team Penske has had, a veteran spotter in Joey Meier and the ability to control the pack while leading, darting back and forth between lanes to block.

 “It would be kind of weird to put my own name out there, but I think Joey is really good and Denny Hamlin is really good,’’ Keselowski said. “I think my teammate, Ryan Blaney, is becoming really good. If I had to pick one more, probably Kevin Harvick.”

Harvick, though, sides with those who have done well lately.

“I think the guys that have the most success right now have been Brad and Joey, and I think the Fords have the fastest cars in the race usually when you look at the past restrictor-plate races,’’ Kevin Harvick said.

Kyle Busch views the top of the class this way:

“The last couple years, I look at Brad and Denny as being the top two guys,’’ Busch said. “I think the speed of Stenhouse’s car was pretty important last year. He did a good job with it, won some races. But I got to look at Brad and Denny, the things they do, as the guys you kind of watch, see if you can mimic, emulate some of the stuff they have going on in order to get yourself through the pack and up towards the front.”

What is it that Keselowski and Hamlin do so well?

“It’s like they’re outside the car and they can see the things that are happening behind them better than I can,’’ Busch said. “Like, I can only see what’s happening behind me, the guy that’s directly behind me. I can’t necessarily tell the run that he’s getting and where the energy is coming from behind him. It’s like those guys are standing outside their car, they’re feeling or seeing what all is happening, where to get that energy from, all that sort of stuff.’’

Hamlin sees a similarity with Keselowski in how they race on plate tracks.

“I think me and Brad have similar driving styles on the superspeedways in how they do things,’’ Hamlin said. “I think there’s other things that make bold moves, and it looks good for a highlight reel, but it’s not always great for winning a race. And so I think there is a difference, and it just ‑‑ for whatever reason, our styles have morphed into kind of the same driver on these types of racetracks, and it’s really just ‑‑ for whatever reason, it’s made us successful.’’

2. AT WHAT PRICE WAS Alex Bowman’S POLE?

Kevin Harvick questioned the tactic by Alex Bowman in Thursday night’s first qualifying race.

Bowman, who won the pole for the Daytona 500, immediately went to the outside and fell to the back of the pack after the green flag waved. He spent most of race in the back and finished 14th.

“Alex Bowman didn’t learn anything today in my opinion,’’ Harvick said. “They’ll go out and practice. Starting on the pole is great but not knowing what your car is going to do is a complete waste of time in my opinion.’’

Crew chief Greg Ives defended the action.

“I saw those guys wreck and that’s something we weren’t going to have to do,’’ he told reporters after the race. “I’m already locked into the pole position, so there’s no sense being out there and having people get around you and get in a situation to get wrecked. You always want to get experience in the draft but … I didn’t think it was a benefit. We came down here with a plan and we’re going to stick with the plan. Right now it’s working out.’’

Bowman said this week that his car was “trimmed out’’ in qualifying, meaning that downforce had been taken out so the car would be faster. That’s great for single-car qualifying but teams were not allowed to change their cars before the qualifying races, so that meant that Bowman’s car likely would be unstable in traffic. To avoid the potential problems, Bowman went straight to the back.

In a race that saw a fourth of the 20 cars eliminated by accidents, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, Bowman survived and has his No. 1 starting spot intact. There’s still the chance to draft in practice if the team elects — remember how Chad Knaus and Johnson used to famously avoid the draft in practice previously — and fine-tune the car once they can make adjustments for it to handle better in traffic.

If nothing else, Bowman’s pole provide additional exposure for his sponsors, marked the fourth straight year Hendrick Motorsports won the Daytona 500 pole and gave the organization something to rally around after a disappointing season that featured only four wins — the fewest for Hendrick since 2000.

3. RICKY STENHOUSE JR. GAINED NOTICE IN HIS RACE

It was as if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. raced with a billboard-sized, neon-colored “Look at Me!” sign during his qualifying race Thursday night.

But he wasn’t trying to gain the attention of fans but fellow competitors.

In the first qualifying race, Stenhouse repeatedly dived to the bottom lane and tried to make moves.

“I was just kind of tired of riding around on the outside,’’ Stenhouse said.

But his actions also did more, showing the field, particularly those that weren’t in his race, how well his car handled and the speed it had. It was a chance to remind drivers that his car would be a good one to work with in the Daytona 500.

Ford has won the past seven restrictor-plate races and has won two of the three events in Speedweeks with Brad Keselowski winning the Clash and Ryan Blaney winning his qualifying race Thursday.

4. STILL GOING

Richard Petty is 80 years old and still continues to be a part of the sport when he easily could enjoy a more casual life of retirement.

So why does he keep going?

“I’ve been going to the races since I was 11 years old,’’ Petty said. “It’s in your blood. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do the racing part.’’

5. THE FINAL WORD

Clint Bowyer offered this at Media Day earlier this week when told by a reporter that he looked leaner and asked how he had gotten that way.

“I just quit eating,’’ Bowyer said. “That is what you have to do when you get fat. Quit eating and quit drinking. Be miserable, and hire a trainer that is mean as hell.”

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NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

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The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett preview upcoming races

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his weekly appearance on the show.

Krista Voda hosts with Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

· Not long ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bragged about his ability to remember who he’s beaten for wins in past races. In this episode, we’ll test his memory in a trivia game called “Who Did Junior Pass For The Win?” We’ll be taking your questions for Junior throughout the show. Just send it on social media with the hashtag #Wednesdale.

· Sonoma begins a critical summer stretch for the Monster Energy Cup Series. With Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire on the horizon, teams will be challenged and playoff hopes will rise and fall. Dale Jr. & Dale Jarrett preview the upcoming races.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones at Sonoma

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Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones when the series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Ryan Newman leads the way with his 600th Cup start.

The Richard Childress Racing driver will become the 28th driver to reach the mark. His first start came on Nov. 5, 2000 at ISM Raceway with Team Penske.

Newman is one of four remaining active Cup drivers, including Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Derrike Cope, who competed against Dale Earnhardt in a Cup points race. Only Newman and Busch compete full-time.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will make his 450th start. He will become the 52nd driver to reach that mark.

Hamlin’s first start came on Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. All of his starts have been with JGR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his 200th career start. He will be the 132nd driver to reach that mark.

Stenhouse’s first start came in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 with Wood Brothers Racing when he substituted for Trevor Bayne, who was out due to illness. Every other start has been with Roush Fenway Racing.

The last race at Michigan International Speedway saw AJ Allmendinger make his 350th Cup start. 71 drivers have reached that mark.

How much does starting position matter at Sonoma?

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Do you need to qualify on the pole, the front row or the even the top five to better your chances of winning a NASCAR race?

On a typical race weekend one would think that’s the case. Through 15 races this season, the winner has started in the top five eight times. Only four winners started 10th or worse.

But this isn’t a typical race weekend as the Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for its first road course race of the season.

The series has held 29 races at the road course since 1989. In those 29 races, the winner started from the pole five times (17.2 percent).

That makes it the most prolific starting position at the track in terms of wins.

But a winner hasn’t come from the pole since 2004 when Jeff Gordon did it for a track-best third time.

The driver starting second has won three times, the last occurring in 2010 with Jimmie Johnson. Since that race, only one Sonoma winner – Carl Edwards (fourth) in 2014 – has started in the top five.

In the 13 races since Gordon last won from the pole, the race winner started in the top five three times.

The last three races saw the winner start 11th (Kyle Busch), 10th (Tony Stewart) and 12th (Kevin Harvick).

In contrast, the 14 races from 1992-2005 saw every race winner came from inside the top 10 and 11 from the top five.

What’s changed? Road course racing became much more aggressive with the transition to double fire restarts in 2009. The introduction of stage racing last year added another wrinkle to a type of racing that already saw aggressive pit strategy.

But Sonoma isn’t too kind to drivers starting in the back half of the field.

The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 32nd, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007. Only one other time has the winner come from outside the top 15, when Kyle Busch started 30th and won in 2008.